In an ideal world, every face turned towards a teacher would reflect back the kind of excitement and passion projected from that teacher. Naturally, students outside of the English major may be more hesitant to engage with texts that stray from the canon they ought to have a working knowledge of as a college graduate. Regardless of major, subjects such as medieval literature or even Shakespeare can seem unbearably esoteric for some students—as a teacher and scholar of literature, one of my main concerns is to create a link between texts and ideas seemingly far removed from our modern moment. I believe that all (good) literature endeavors to do cultural work. In order for students to fully engage with the complexities of these texts and others, they must be able to grasp what you're giving them. And the more accessible literature is, the more meaningful and productive subsequent critical thinking can be.
In my teaching I find it vitally important not to take myself too seriously. I find that often more colloquial explanations, while not sacrificing meaning/content/context, can allow students the necessary access points to begin more eloquent critical thinking and reading. Teaching is, of course, a performance, and I have a tremendous amount of fun making seemingly over-complicated plot points, language differences, historical contexts, etc. engaging and understandable. Undergraduate students are far from simpletons—they can understand and intelligently discuss complicated and seemingly far-removed literature and concepts. In order to do so, however, these must be "translated" in a sense: giving them the ability to connect their experiences—putting it in their language—makes students want to engage, and their critical offerings exceed my high expectations every time.
Accessibility and intelligibility understandably creates a heightened sense of relativity for students. Above all else, if students gain the ability to connect to the texts and concepts of the material, they are more enthusiastic and productive. In this hectic environment there is so much competing for students' attention, and ultimately they need to know why to care. If they can connect their own anxieties, goals, expectations, and experiences to seemingly esoteric literature, they have a point of entry into a conversation in which critical issues and ideas can be explored. This is part of what I call "The Ikea Effect" of teaching: if students are given the tools and knowledge to critically think for themselves, and we show applicability to their own lives, but most importantly that we as educators value their contributions (which may not always be accurate or complete, but is always the starting point in a positive learning moment) students will want to work harder and be more involved and productive thinkers in and outside of the classroom.
"The Ikea Effect" of teaching
While watching a TED talk on labor and conditioning, I was struck by the applicability of Dan Ariely's explanation of the psychology of "What makes us feel good about our work" to teaching. Substitute "workplace" for "classroom" and "employees" for "students," and we have a remarkable meditation on the simple ways in which we as educators can make our students love critical thinking, reading, and writing:
Now, I think a little bit like the IKEA effect, by getting people to work harder, they actually got them to love what they're doing to a higher degree... So when we think about labor, we usually think about motivation and payment as the same thing, but the reality is that we should probably add all kinds of things to it—meaning, creation, challenges, ownership, identity, pride, etc. The good news is that if we added all of those components and thought about them—how do we create our own meaning, pride motivation, and how do we do it in our workplace, and for the employees—I think we could get people to be both more productive and happier.